NASA Space Rockets
NASA has used many space rockets during the past half century. These boosters have sent astronauts into Earth orbit, a dozen men to walk on the moon, and hundreds of satellites to explore space and the planets.
NASA's rockets for human missions can be divided into two categories: those it borrowed from the military and others it built on its own. When the Space Age and NASA were young, the former predominated. In later years, the space agency developed its own boosters.
The Mercury program used two military rockets, Redstone and Atlas. Because of its limited power, the smaller Redstone was used for short suborbital missions by Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom.
The larger Atlas rocket was used to launch John Glenn into orbit on Feb. 20, 1962. Three other Mercury astronauts -- Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordo Cooper -- flew missions launched by the Atlas rocket.
For the larger two-man Gemini spacecraft, the U.S. Air Force's Titan rocket was required. Titan rockets successfully launched 10 crews into orbit in 1965 and 1966. Atlas boosters played a supporting role by launching Agena target vehicles that Gemini crews used to perfect docking procedures.
Mercury and Gemini were just the warm-up acts for NASA's greatest feat: landing men on the moon. For that giant leap, the space agency needed larger rockets than anything the military built for defense purposes.
The mighty Saturn space rocket came in two versions: the smaller Saturn IB, which was used to send Apollo spacecraft into Earth orbit, and the massive Saturn V, which launched missions to the Moon.
The Saturn IB was used once during the Apollo program for the first flight by Apollo 7, while the Saturn V was used for all subsequent flights. There were 11 manned flights in the program, with no booster failures.
The Saturn V stood 363 feet tall (110.6 m), measured 33 feet (10.1 m) across, and weighed nearly 6.7 million pounds (3 million kg) at liftoff. Eleven engines powered its three stages. The rocket's five F-1 first-stage engines generated 7.6 million pounds of thrust.
A Saturn V launched the Skylab space station into orbit in 1973. The station was a modified third stage of the rocket that was usually used to send crews to the Moon. It was outfitted with living quarters and scientific instruments to house astronauts. A trio of three-man crews were launched to Skylab using Saturn IB boosters.
Space Rockets such as the Saturn V launched Americans to the Moon.
The final -- and 16th launch -- of the Saturn space rocket family took place on July 15, 1975, when a Saturn IB lifted a three-man Apollo crew on a mission to rendezvous with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft in Earth orbit.
By that time, NASA was already developing the space shuttle. Powered by three main engines and two strap-on solid rocket boosters, the system was capable of placing an orbiter the size of a DC-9 into orbit. The shuttle program began in 1981 and ended 30 years later after 135 flights.
NASA is now working on a heavy-lift vehicle derived from shuttle technology that will send the Orion spacecraft to the moon, asteroids and Mars. A parallel commercial program is also under development for flights to Earth orbit.